Literature has roused men to war, women to emancipation and the world to collectively detest slavery. But is one novel responsible for a sea of suicides?
In 1960 Japanese writer Seichō Matsumoto’s “Nami no Tō “or “Tower of Waves” was published to critical acclaim. It features a couple in a doomed relationship with the heroine dramatically ending her life in the Aokigahara Forest. Since then suicides, particularly of the young, have explosively increased in Japan – 32,845 in 2009. There is of course no way to definitively fix blame on a particular book, but a few damning clues float to the surface.
Aokigahara Forest (or the Sea of Trees) sitting at the base of Mt Fuji has traditionally been a place to dread and avoid. Crammed with dense, dark trees that muffle sound and light and dotted with gaping ice caves, there is almost no wildlife. An eerie silence lends credence to tales of demons, ghosts and angry revenge spirits in what is also known as the “Demon Forest.” Convoluted trails lead to nowhere, and veins of subterranean iron render magnets and cell phones difficult to use, should the death pilgrim have a last-minute change of heart.
Popular mystery writer Matsumotoa probably had no intention of luring teens to their death when he penned his prose. However its power to inspire suicide is mutely confirmed by copies of “Nami no Tō” lying beside many dead. The work glorifies and romanticizes death as a means to a peaceful end of earthly problems.
Fulbright scholar Roxanne Russell notes the strong association between beauty, death and romance in the work. Even the dark forest is idealized, peaceful, full of birds and rabbits – hardly the sense most Japanese have of the place, post-novel.
Another work “The Complete Manual of Suicide” by Wataru Tsurumi, is often its companion piece. Tsurumi actively promotes suicide and its methods, such as his helpful advice that Jukai (the sea of trees) is “the perfect place to die.” Authorities find about 100 bodies each year with others probably hidden. Annually police and volunteers comb the forest looking for bodies, which they often find draped from trees. In a sinister twist the Yakuza (Japanese mafia) pay beggars to find and strip corpses of valuables. Apparently America isn’t the only nation plagued by Kervorkians.
Japanese kill themselves at the rate of more than 30,000 a year by hangings, gassings, poison, leaping into oncoming trains and other methods. This didn’t begin with the suicide manual, but is an ancient theme in Japan, often an acceptable way to avoid disgrace, debt or even a means of apology. Authorities are very concerned about the needless loss of life, though, and with a plummeting birth rate, they have none to lose.
Western literature hosted several of its own suicide seasons as well, Romeo and Juliet, Anthony and Cleopatra, Madame Butterfly, et al. The 18th century went into overdrive on the demise of sad heroes such as Thomas Chatterton, a young poet who tragically died of self-administered arsenic poisoning at 17. Artists idealized his innocence, youth and tragically wasted genius for most of the next century. Chatterton is almost beatified in paintings, poems, eulogies and ballads by Keats, Shelley and the lot.
Painter Henry Wallis prettified Chatterton’s suicide up so well that prints of his painting “The Death of Chatterton” occupied homes across Britain. Wallis’ image leaves the young man illuminated, elegant and graceful in a tragically Greek kind of way. There is no blood, bloated body or mourning family; but a proper, socially acceptable suicide with attendant pathos and glory.
After Chatterton’s demise, Goethe’s 1774 novel “The Sufferings of Young Werther” added to the repertoire of the suicidally inclined. The young protagonist Werther kills himself in anguish and obsession over a woman he couldn’t have. Goethe’s first and sole novel in the “sturm und drang” genre launched him to stardom, and he later regretted the melodramatic, besotted young monster he created.
Goethe couldn’t put “Werther” back in the bottle, though. The book was a mega-hit spawning entire industries of parodies, figurines, clothing, fans, cologne and operas. German youth identified with the fictional character so tightly that some immersed themselves body and soul. They read it compulsively and memorized it, made processions to the supposed “tomb” of Werther and created a unique sub-culture.
“Werther-fieber” (Werther Fever), which afflicted crazed fans, may sound familiar to us now (think Justin, “Twilight” and Harry Potter). Unfortunately some kids carried their emulation all the way to the novel’s dark, despairing end, which included a costumed copycat suicide. Local authorities actually banned the book in Leipzig in an effort to protect youth from their extreme preoccupation.
Now we lay buried under an avalanche of film, novels and music either expressly dedicated to suicide or using it for a crutch, a means to make all problems disappear.
I have a problem with this, as did Friedrich Nicolai, a peer from Goethe’s time. He created a satire, a lighter version of Werther’s “sorrows.” Nicolai’s happy ending involved a gun that had been wisely loaded with chicken blood instead of bullets and his love returned. All was well and happily resolved with a little plot tweak.
Too bad it doesn’t work that way in real life. I don’t propose we outlaw depiction of suicide, but artists may want to consider the effects their work have on readers/viewers; particularly if the target audience is teens who are easily manipulated by their random, orbiting emotions – zenith Monday, nadir Tuesday.
Instead the young and easily despondent are afflicted on all sensual fronts, often by the arts. Ozzy croons, “Where to hide, suicide is the only way out.” Silverchair’s “Suicidal Dreams” is very popular: “The rope is here, now I’ll find a use. I’ll kill myself, I’ll put my head in a noose.” Third-class poetry, and it’s available for your child’s ringtone too. What more could anyone ask?
Films and books may not as obviously promote the final solution to 12-year-olds but if they can get their hands on videos, “The Virgin Suicides” from 1999 portrays an absolute fascination with the suicides of five young sisters. That’s all.
A prototype for films made expressly to demoralize and mess up kids on all fronts is the 2011 “Suicide Room.” A young protagonist wrestles the mud of teen angst, mental illness and gender confusion, ending his wretched life by overdose in a bar bathroom. Suicidal schemes and existentialist chat rooms are heavily featured throughout.
If the Supreme Court judged films like “Suicide Room” by the same standards it sets to define pornography (Miller Test), it would fail on several points. For instance, this work “taken as a whole lacks serious literary, artistic, political and scientific value.” Hopefully it also was never inspiring.
Let’s pass by books for now, because apparently most kids have – unless they’re made into videos. Directors, artists, writers and singers help shape the world of young people, who are highly suggestible to a combination of emotion and art, as Goethe found long ago. This applies to music videos and other types of digital art presentations as well.
Whether we accept it or not, we all bear some responsibility for the greater good. It’s hard to believe any artist seriously wants their young viewers to take a dive, overdose on heroin or die in flaming glory. Then who would buy their stuff?
Azusa Hayano is a ranger/geologist and suicide counselor of sorts who walks the “Sea of Trees” tending Aokigahara forest. He shows compassion and patience for the few living beings he encounters, encouraging them to enjoy and value their lives. For those who made their last decision, he attempts to identify remains and arrange a dignified burial.
Artists with all our gifts should be able to do as much this humble park ranger to inspire life and discourage death.
"Nobody is alone in this world," says Hayano. "I think it is impossible to die heroically by committing suicide."